chicken on the cheap
If you own a television and are not particularly speedy with the remote, you’ve probably seen the commercial in which KFC glibly suggests that the only way to feed a family of four for under $10 is to buy them a bucket of fast food chicken. My initial response, after watching the TV mom and her two children zip through the grocery feigning shock at the price of such thrifty staples as a bag of flour, was to demand of KFC, ‘If I can’t cook it for $10, how can you?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course. For one thing, I was talking to the TV, plus I have a reasonable grasp on economies of scale. More importantly, I’ve read enough of the modern-day muckrakers to know that fast food is made possible by farming subsidies and cheap oil, and that the industry relies on exploitatively cheap labor and unsustainable factory farming to manufacture its sleazy product at bargain-basement prices.
But once I finished angrily lecturing the television — which had long since moved on to flushable toilet brushes or some other such nonsense — it occurred to me that not only could I cook that for $10, I could cook something much better using (mostly) local ingredients. And since we’d already invited Chris’s aunt and uncle to dinner, I figured last night was as good an opportunity as any to prove the Colonel wrong.
Now, the Colonel is understandably tight-lipped about his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices, but my fried chicken (in this particular case) involves garlic and rosemary. Inspired by a recipe in my recently acquired and already sufficiently splattered copy of The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, this chicken is everything fried chicken should be — tender, juicy, and flavorful with nice crispy skin. It’s not the kind of fried chicken you’re likely to serve with biscuits and gravy, although I am rather fond of that kind of fried chicken in the abstract.
I served ours with gratin dauphinois and a warm cabbage and apple slaw. With the exception of salt, pepper, olive oil, vinegar, and gruyère all of the ingredients are local and the whole thing cost a total of $10.67, which is just a few cents more than KFC’s $9.99 seven-piece meal would cost with tax.
Had I been able to resist sprinkling the potatoes with expensive Swiss cheese, our dinner would have cost 81 cents less. Gratin dauphinois is perfectly yummy without the crispy cheesey crust and, in fact, there’s some debate in culinary circles as to whether or not a cheesey gratin dauphinois is an authentic gratin dauphinois. I’m not terribly concerned about authenticity, I just like cheese. And cheese nestled among layer upon layer of potatoes, cream, and garlic is pure cold-weather heaven. I’ve eaten gratin dauphinois for dinner without so much as an accompanying green salad to lend it the credibility of a balanced-meal, and I was awfully tempted to have last night’s leftovers for breakfast this morning. But I didn’t; I had Cheerios.
As fond as I am of creamy, cheesey potatoes — particularly on a cold, sleety night like last night — they were not the highlight of our $10 chicken dinner. That honor belongs to cabbage and apple slaw, a dish I probably would never have made if I hadn’t been trying to incorporate an inexpensive local vegetable into the meal. Cool weather greens abound at the co-op; unfortunately they cost upwards of $3.50 a bunch. But resting amid the kale, chard, collards and spinach was the lowly cabbage, at half the price.
I like cabbage. I like it braised, boiled, stir-fried, steamed or roasted, and I especially like it raw in slaw. However, we are long past the point of summer slaw and I didn’t think a bowl full of vinegary cabbage would be a particularly good complement to the rosemary, garlic, and cheese that dominate the rest of the meal.
I thought apples might be nice. A quick consultation with my beloved Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook confirmed this hunch, and the resulting warm cabbage and apple slaw was hands down the best part of the meal. Well, unless you ask Chris, who ate only chicken. The cabbage and apple slices retained a bit of their crunch, and the flavors — savory onion, sweet cabbage, and tart apple — melded together beautifully to create one delicious side dish. I estimate it was about 8012 times yummier than the mashed “potatoes” and biscuits that accompany KFC’s chicken. It was certainly more nutritious, and not any more expensive.
There are a number of factors that might frustrate a busy mom’s efforts to prepare a wholesome, home-cooked meal for her family of four, and price may very well be one of them. But to suggest that if that busy mom can afford a $10 dinner, her $10 is best spent at KFC is disingenuous at best and deliberately deceitful at worst. Better-tasting, healthier, and more sustainable food is available to many and should be accessible to all.
Crisp Brick-Fried Chicken with Rosemary & Garlic
adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kaper and Sally Swift’s The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper
3 lb. chicken, cut up
1 T. kosher salt
1 t. pepper
4 sprigs rosemary
1 T. olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1) Rinse chicken and pat dry with paper towels.
2) Remove needles from rosemary sprigs and chop coarsely. Chop garlic coarsely and combine with rosemary. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken pieces with salt & pepper, then rub seasoning into meat. Place garlic-rosemary mixture under skin, distributing evenly among chicken pieces.
3) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
4) Heat oil in large nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Put the chicken in the skillet, skin side down. Place a weight, like a foil-wrapped brick or heavy skillet, on top of the chicken. (I used a saucepan weighted with my full tea kettle. A bag of flour would work too.)
5) Cook the chicken for 10 minutes, then remove the weight. Use a spatula to loosen the chicken, then turn it using tongs. (or the spatula — who am I to tell you how to flip?) Cook on the second side for about 5 minutes.
6) Transfer chicken from the skillet to a baking dish and place in preheated oven. Bake for about 5 minutes or until a thermometer reads 170 degrees. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before serving.
(click here for the original recipe)
Ordinarily I make gratin dauphinois with about twice as much cream and cheese as I used for the meal described above. This recipe is for the scaled back version, but you can easily double those ingredients to taste.
1 lb. waxy potatoes
1/2 c. half & half
1 oz. gruyère
1 clove garlic
1 T. butter
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper (I usually use white pepper, although I used black this time)
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub a gratin or baking dish with it. Butter the dish.
2) Scrub the potatoes and slice them 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick. Layer overlapping slices of potato into the baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (if using more cheese, I like to sprinkle cheese between layers)
3) Pour half & half over potatoes, sprinkle the top with cheese and dab with butter.
4) Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until nicely browned.
Warm Cabbage, Onion, & Apple Slaw
from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables
¼ c. onion
¾ lb. red cabbage
1 T. olive oil
1 t. apple cider vinegar
1) Slice the onion as thin as possible. Peel any dirty or wilted leaves away from the cabbage, cut into quarters, remove the core, and slice thinly — the cabbage will naturally fall apart into strips as you slice it. Peel, core, and slice the apples very thin.
2) Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté 3-5 minutes until they’ve turned translucent and are just beginning to brown.
3) Add the apples and sauté about one minute until everything is sizzling.
4) Add the cabbage, salt & pepper, and vinegar. Raise the heat to medium-high and stir just long enough to barely cook the cabbage, maybe two minutes. Keep warm over low heat until ready to serve or serve cold, possibly on a sandwich.